Green school. Red light?

By CHRIS FARAONE  |  January 6, 2010

Merrillee Harrigan, vice-president of education for the Alliance to Save Energy (a DC-based nonprofit that promotes and consults on green development, including Sidwell Friends), says that a successful green school consists of much more than just an eco-friendly edifice. Such academies, she says, must also visibly track consumption and conservation in order to insure that they yield the smallest possible carbon footprint. To those ends and others, Connolly is slating four City Council hearings in 2010 — on curriculum, workforce ties, sustainable citizenship, and financing — to substantiate his prospectus.

Though Boston Chief of Environment and Energy Jim Hunt would prefer to see a retrofit on an existing school than an entirely new campus, the bureaucratic consensus is that Connolly's concept is feasible. After all, Mayor Tom Menino serves on the National Board of Green Schools. But despite the possibility that such an undertaking would be somewhat subsidized by the Massachusetts School Building Authority and the US Green Building Council, among others, even optimists have difficulty envisioning this education oasis coming to Boston any time soon. "The idea is a great one," says Roxbury Councilor Chuck Turner, who serves as vice-chair of the Education Committee. "But the dilemma is how we're going to fund it. Right now we have a $500 million deficit for school repairs."

Even so, trends suggest that similar forward-thinking sacrifices are proliferating nationally. More than 200 learning facilities across America have received certification from the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) — a DC-based nonprofit that sets national green standards — with another 1600 on course. Of that entire group, only one, Roosevelt elementary in Hyde Park, is a Boston Public School (others are acknowledged by the statewide program Massachusetts-Collaborative for High Performance Schools).

Like father, likes harnessing the sun
Connolly, a lawyer, councilor, husband, and father of two young children, was born in Roslindale in 1973 and promptly recruited into the green army. His father, Michael, served as secretary of the commonwealth from1979 to 1994, and was a trendsetter on climate legislation. Though opponents chided him for expending resources on causes they deemed beyond his jurisdiction — some labeled him "Secretary of Space" — the elder Connolly pushed his campaign in 1987 to save the ozone, and that year even led a delegation to the United Nations conference that initiated the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer.Councilor Connolly attributes his environmental enlightenment to his father's politics, and to traditional thrift.

"The Irish population in Boston has a great environmental spirit," he says. "In my house as a kid, if it got cold you put on an extra sweater, and you turned off the lights when you left the room. I definitely had those principles around energy back when this city was a different place."

After working with at-risk adolescents in Manhattan for four years — the "most positively influential experience" of his life — Connolly returned to Boston in 1998 to study law and teach at the Boston Renaissance Charter School downtown. Those years were "frustrating," he says, since the Renaissance was stretched beyond its capability. "I learned a lot from that," says Connolly. "I got a comparison point for an urban school that was struggling, as opposed to an urban school that worked." Nearly a decade later, with lessons considered, Connolly believes his environmental-sciences academy could be a prime emblem for the latter.

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